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Album Review: We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unravelling

 
By on Thursday, 23rd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

At a time when the term apathy is almost an outlawed word in Scotland, it’s ironic that an album by a band from north of Hadrian’s Wall inspires an overwhelmingly apathetic feeling within me. From the beginning of We Were Promised Jetpacks‘ third outing ‘Unravelling’ – barring sparse sections of the record – all I could think was what else I could be doing rather than listen to this record.

Maybe I’ll listen to the new We Are the Ocean song ‘ARK’. That’s been buzzing around my head nicely for a while. Or perhaps I’ll try and write a feature piece on that BBC Music cover creation of ‘God Only Knows’, to delve into the madness where they put Dave Grohl in the same vein as (definition of flash in the pan) Sam Smith. Or perhaps I’ll listen to that 30-second snippet of the new Foo Fighters album in the documentary promo.

For me, those thoughts gave the underlying impression of an album that failed to do what I demand from music. It neither grabbed me, nor did it take me on a journey, nor did it inspire any poignant emotion within me – barring apathy – if that can be classified as a discernable emotion. I didn’t feel it was truly experimental either; there was nothing which jumped out and grabbed me and made me think, nobody else is doing that at the moment.

The record truly just doesn’t get going until quarter of an hour in, despite flecks of promise at the end of LP opener ‘Safety in Numbers’. ‘Night Terror’ at least had enough about to wake me from the faux-slumber I drifted into at the top of the album. Perhaps I was expecting too much? But when the NME call their second album “Punchy, literate guitar music”, I expect a bit of punch before around 25 minutes into the blooming thing. ‘A Part of It’ starts off with a bit of bite and vigour, almost enough to nudge me awake from my stasis.

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From the brilliantly angst-ridden breakout record of ‘These Four Walls’, We Were Promised Jetpacks showed a great promise in the brilliantly honest songwriting that underpinned the power of their debut outing. Despite their being an almost overwhelming sense of anxiety throughout ‘Unravelling’, this album just doesn’t hit the emotional highs and lows that predecessors have found the note on. As far as British post-rock is going, the group looked certain to push their way to the forefront, but this album despite having all the sheen of a brilliant production and some slick guitar work just feels a little underwhelming.

I just thought a band with the word ‘jetpacks’ in the title may be a little more exciting with maturity, but even after ‘Unravelling’, I still think we’re waiting for lift-off.

5/10

Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks‘ third album ‘Unravelling’ is out now on FatCat Records. Read Mary’s review of previous single ‘I Keep It Composed’ here.

 

Album Review: Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were

 
By on Wednesday, 22nd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Ben Howard 'I Forget Where We Were' coverWhen an artist’s debut album garners a Mercury Prize nomination and two Brit Awards, following it up with a second full release must seem a monumental proposition. Undaunted by his early success with 2011’s ‘Every Kingdom’, Ben Howard has succeeded in not only fulfilling but exceeding the expectations he set forth for himself with his new release, ‘I Forget Where We Were’. Where ‘Every Kingdom’ alternated between quiet introspection and uptempo folk-pop, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ takes a darker, more dramatic turn, replacing carefully crafted hooks with broader instrumental sections and an extended sonic palette.

Produced once again by drummer Chris Bond, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is more pared back than the lengthy ‘Every Kingdom’, but the individual songs on the new album are characteristically expansive, with 7 of the 10 tracks exceeding the 5-minute mark. Most notable among those is the epic ‘End of the Affair’. Though it appears late in the overall sequence, the early single release of this song set the tone for the album, swapping Howard’s usual warm acoustic instrumental setting for one based in the echoes of electric guitars. Which is not to say that the song lacks emotional connection; indeed Howard’s rasping vocals drip with the sad bitterness of his lyrics. Each repeat of the chorus – “living without her / living at all / seems to slow me down / living forever / hell, I don’t know / do I care, do I care / the thunder’s rumbled sound” – is more anguished building into the frenetic, breathtaking coda.

The evocatively reverberant electric guitar riff of opening track ‘Small Things’ introduces the new sound without preface, offsetting the ominous vocal line of the chorus, “has the world gone mad or is it me? / all these small things, they gather round me”. The deep angst in the closing instrumental section segues flawlessly into the driving beat of second track ‘Rivers in Your Mouth’. Title track and recent single ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is more rock than folk with its wailing guitars and crashing cymbals. The electric guitar solo in the bridge section perfectly illustrates the growing dissonance and despair of a relationship starting to unravel.

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Among the howling guitars and propulsive drums, Howard weaves in hints of his signature acoustic folk sound. The rhythmic finger-picked guitar figure of ‘In Dreams’ is both ethereal and portentously energetic, matched with a moaning hum in the backing vocals and and a bowed string countermelody. ‘She Treats Me Well’ is a soulful acoustic ballad whose slight blues inflection grows stronger as its equally blues-tinged lyrics play out.

Amazingly, the songs on ‘I Forget Where We Were’ maintain their high level of intensity and focus into the second half of the album. ‘Evergreen’ pinpoints the distant wintery chill that characterises most of the record, the lyric “there in the lights you said something, but I can’t remember what” capturing the essence of memory that is fading, yet still haunting in its emotion. In standout track ‘Conrad’, Howard makes lyrical reference to Polish-English author Joseph Conrad, comparing his former lover to the breached ship in Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ and his protagonist to the novel’s title character. Closing track ‘All is Now Harmed’ continues the theme of disillusionment, but returns to a more sensual musicality, building to a soaring instrumental dynamic with the repeated chorus “what is in your nature looms inside your blood / hold me in harm’s wake, baby, all is now harmed”.

Thematically, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ combines restrained intellect with a sense of slow-burning emotion just below the surface. It’s not as heart-on-sleeve as ‘Every Kingdom’, but musically, it has more edge, more bite. Howard has refined his songwriting to the point where every sonic choice has definite musical or emotional intent, and the concentrated tracklisting allows each song to deliver its full emotional impact. It’s rare to hear a sophomore album more powerful than its hit predecessor debut, especially one as critically acclaimed as ‘Every Kingdom’, but Howard has truly outdone himself here.

9/10

‘I Forget Where We Were’ by Ben Howard is out now on Universal/Island Records. Howard will embark on a sold out tour of the UK and Ireland in December.

 

Album Review: Bear’s Den – Islands

 
By on Monday, 20th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Bear's Den Islands coverAlt-folk trio Bear’s Den have just released their much-anticipated debut album ‘Islands’, after achieving critical success with two previous EPs. Signed to acclaimed UK/US record label Communion, the band took part in the label’s Austin to Boston Tour in March 2012 on the strength of their first EP, ‘Agape’, before releasing ‘Without/Within’ in October 2013.

Now comprised of frontman Andrew Davie, drummer Kevin Jones, and guitar and banjo player Joey Haynes, Bear’s Den have been on TGTF’s radar for several years now, dating back to July 2011. But Davie cites the following year, 2012, as a major turning point for the band, starting with the recruitment of Haynes. “I got goose bumps at the first rehearsal”, he recalls. “We’ve got wildly disparate influences, but the three of us together have got real chemistry.” Then the aforementioned cross-country tour of America, beginning at SXSW 2013, saw them join the likes of fellow Communion-associated acts Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Staves.   “That was the point we really bonded as a band”, acknowledges Davie.

I first encountered Bear’s Den myself when I reviewed ‘Sahara’ from the ‘Without/Within’ EP, and I was lucky enough to see their repeat appearance at SXSW 2014 earlier this year. A mere 6 months later, they have emerged with a full LP combining a handful of previously released tracks with newly composed songs, including recent singles ‘Elysium’ and ‘Above The Clouds of Pompeii’.

The album title ‘Islands’ shares its inspiration with the moniker of the band itself, as Davie reveals in the accompanying press release. He says that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ allows “a dual perspective of seeing the world through both a kid’s and an adult’s eyes. A lot of our songs address the world in the same way. Bear’s Den is our name for the island the kid escapes to”. The island metaphor goes back to early track ‘Stubborn Beast’, included late in the tracklisting here, which Davie says “was the first song our manager heard and connected with. The isolated nature of it embodies pretty much everything we’re trying to express”.

The album’s general theme of exploring personal relationships is more straightforward in some songs than others, encompassing the idea of platonic love in opening track ‘Agape’ and the idea of an idyllic afterlife in ‘Elysium’. The child-adult dichotomy is sharply illustrated in ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’, which considers the instability of a child’s relationship to his parents. The Biblical setting of ‘Isaac’ reverses that perspective, examining the relationship of parent to child in the lyric “Isaac, I could never learn / that a father’s love must be earned / while your mother need not learn / how to love you”. The opposition is fully elucidated in the music as well, with the gradually building instrumental background of ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’ contrasting the static, introspective setting of ‘Isaac.’

The overall feel of the music on the album is atmospheric and ethereal, often lulling the listener into a trance with its subtly layered beauty. The warm acoustic sounds of ‘Agape’ and closing ballad ‘Bad Blood’ are balanced in the more progressive rock feeling of ‘The Love That We Stole’ and ‘Think of England’, but nothing on the album ever threatens to cross into the frenetic folk energy of the inevitably-compared Mumford and Sons. Davie’s calm, even lead vocals and the steady harmonies in the backing vocals give ‘Islands’ a sense of stability and continuity, providing context for a few surprising moments, including the jarring lyric “I want to fuck away all my fear” in the dynamic climax of the album ‘When You Break’.

If ‘Islands’ is a somewhat predictable full length debut, it’s only because Bear’s Den have taken plenty of time to refine their sound and their songwriting before releasing it. Here, they’ve taken what clearly works best for them and displayed it to their best advantage, combining simple folk song structures with thought-provoking lyrics and effective instrumental arrangements to create a record that is at once cohesive and expansive, appealing to both intellect and emotion.

8.5/10

Bear’s Den‘s debut album ‘Islands’ is out today via Communion Records / Caroline International. They will tour the UK and Ireland in early 2015; all the details can be found right here.

 

Album Review: Sivu – Something on High

 
By on Tuesday, 7th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

From his very first single ‘Better Man Than He’ with a promo video filmed from inside an MRI machine, it was clear that Sivu would be an artist with a difference. Early on in his career, Page’s sound under his moniker Sivu was described by many as ‘eclectic’, and while using this adjective to describe his music is good, I don’t think the one word does his style justice. What makes ‘Something on High’, Sivu’s debut album for Atlantic Records, particularly of interest is that no two songs on this 11-track album sound alike, yet with successive tune, you’re drawn further into his world of fragility and poignancy.

Known to his mum as James Page, like many young people wanting a change of scenery, the singer/songwriter left Cambridgeshire for the bright lights of London. As might be expected for sensitive souls such as his, the transition took an emotional toll on him, causing him to reflect on the meaning of life and an individual’s place in this world. It’s one of the reasons not to be surprised that a major theme of the LP is the finding of and acceptance of the fragile, tender beauty of life in desperate, lonely situations. If that sounds pretty despondent, it is. But it is meant to be, reminding you of the painful cries of Daughter’s Elena Tonra on ‘Landfill’ and ‘Smother’, leaving you wondering why Communion didn’t snap up Page for their illustrious roster. (He also happens to be touring as the main support for another Communion artist, the Mercury Prize-nominated Nick Mulvey, starting on Friday.) Was he just too out there, too weird? But that’s a conversation for another time…

The album is peppered liberally with Sivu’s past successful singles and EP contents, which makes the whole affair a treasure trove for new fans to discover anew while providing a handy. Remarkably upbeat past single ‘Can’t Stop Now’ comes in at the fifth position on this album and provides a good dose of levity. ‘Better Man Than He’, with its oddly comforting repeated “lo lo los”, was written by Page about a friend’s troubles, but it has a wonderful everyman feeling, “we’ll find faith in the most magical of places / and find home in the smallest of rooms / we’ll find life in the most barren of faces / we’ll touch Christ in impending doom”.

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It is probably now time to note that while I don’t think he planned on it specifically, religion is another natural theme on this album, as existentialism and mortality are explored in this past summer’s brilliant single ‘Miracle (Human Error)’ I reviewed back in June. The allegory of Noah’s Ark specifically is used as a plot device in previous EP title track ‘Bodies’, with the mesmerising rhythm and Page’s sweeping melodic vocal sonically conjuring up the image of looming, destructive floodwaters as a metaphor for wiping the slate clean and starting over in life.

And there are even more brilliant gems beyond these, all eliciting the purest of emotions. ‘Sleep’ is the self-deprecating, 2014 sister to the Smiths’ ‘Sing Me to Sleep’, with the tear-jerky lyrics “I’m a cruel, cold-hearted waste of space / now let me sleep so I can slip away” quite possibly going beyond in the waterworks stakes than Morrissey’s own. Album opener ‘Feel Something’ seems to speak to society’s tendency for indifference, or at least indifference on the surface with hiding all true feelings inside. (Sounds a bit like typical English stiff upper lip, eh?) When Page croons, “’cause I don’t really care if you break me / I’m reading signals in the dark that’s gonna find and take me down to our death”, you’d have to be a stone not to feel an ache deep within your heart. Loneliness and the desire to reach out and touch base with someone far away, either physically or emotionally, is examined wonderfully in ‘Communicate’, as the soft strings and other instrumentation beautifully frame Page’s falsetto.

Page has said the title of this album, ‘Something on High’, was inspired by the Vincent Van Gogh painting ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)'; the Dutch artist completed the work 2 months before committing suicide. He has said he chose the album title not for its religious overtones but to reflect the personal self-doubt and uncertainty he felt while he was writing the songs in unfamiliar surroundings. However, taking into account the final product that will be out in the shops next week, Page should be proud of his art and confident that the truest sentiments he has put into his music will find many new fans able to relate to and eagerly embrace those feelings.

9/10

‘Something on High’, the debut album from Sivu, is out next Monday, the 13th of October, on Atlantic Records. Page himself offers up a track by track analysis of the album below. He will be playing a headline show at London Oslo Hackney next Tuesday, the 14th of October; he also begins an opening slot as primary support for Nick Mulvey on his UK tour starting Friday in Falmouth.

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Album Review: Hozier – Hozier

 
By on Monday, 6th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It almost seems irrelevant to write a review of Hozier‘s self-titled debut album at this point. His hit track ‘Take Me to Church’ has been all over radio and internet for months now, and the song’s themes of sexuality and rebellion against institutionalised religion have been discussed ad nauseum. He’s previously released two EPs, ‘Take Me to Church’ and ‘From Eden’ (the latter previously reviewed here), which contain the bulk of the material on the full album, as well as several individual tracks and videos. But, if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 6 months and haven’t heard about Hozier, now’s the time to come out and have a listen.

The album opens with the dramatic ‘Take Me to Church’, which despite its predictability is a strong choice, as it foreshadows the musical and emotional themes Hozier explores in the rest of the songs. The strong blues and gospel influence sets the sonic tone, and the two repeats of the ‘Amen’ section still give me the same goosebumps I experienced when I heard him perform the song live at SXSW earlier this year. Both this song and second track ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’ both reference the literary idea of la petite mort, or small death, which is often used as a metaphor for orgasm. Perhaps as important, however, as the sensual connotation is the subtler implication of having a deep emotional experience, and the music later on the album is nothing if not emotional.

Along with the prevalent religious themes in many of his lyrics, Hozier also employs a distinctly gospel sound in the backing vocals on several tracks, including the sultry ‘Work Song’ and the more pop-oriented ‘Sedated’. The upbeat track ‘Jackie and Wilson’ is Hozier’s wink and nod to his musical influences, with the playful final chorus line, “we’ll name our children Jackie and Wilson / raise ‘em on rhythm and blues”. But the earlier lyric in the chorus “with my mid-youth crisis all said and done / I need to be youthfully felt, ‘cos God I never felt young” might be more telling, as the depth in his songwriting belies his youthful age.

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As the album progresses, several interesting facets of Hozier’s work come more sharply into focus. The album versions of ‘To Be Alone’ and ‘From Eden’ are more refined than the EP releases, with the howling chorus of the former shifted exquisitely to the backing vocals and the bridge section of the latter featuring an interesting string and percussion arrangement that fits perfectly with the song’s serpentine lyrics.

Along with the lyrically Romantic (note the capital R) ‘From Eden’, the album includes three tracks that might have been considered art songs if they were taken out of context, due to their emphasis on the vocal melodies and poetic imagery. ‘In a Week’, featured in a live performance here, is a delicate but earthy take on eternal love, performed as a haunting duet with Karen Cowley of Wyvern Lingo. ‘Like Real People Do’ is a gentle ballad, with a perpetually rocking rhythmic motion and angelically blended backing vocals between the verses. ‘Cherry Wine’ closes the album with a deceptively sweet finger-picked guitar melody and ambient birdsong behind its passionate lyrics.

Overall, the album is an intriguing mix of styles, blending the raw sensuality of the blues with the immediacy of rock and the tempered sensitivity of folk and classical song. Hozier’s fundamental idea of death as a dramatic reference reminds me of the Death Gospel genre explored most notably by American singer/songwriter Adam Arcuragi, who described the concept as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate all the special wonder that is being alive and sentient”. It’s unusual in this era of ephemeral pop music to hear such lofty intellectual artistic ideas receiving air play on mainstream radio, but Hozier presents them on this album in an impressive display of his blossoming musical prowess.

8.5/10

Hozier‘s eponymous debut album is out today on Rubyworks / Island Records.

 

Album Review: Lower Than Atlantis – Lower Than Atlantis

 
By on Friday, 3rd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s a strange world we live in. Men with beards that would only years ago have seen them immediately signed to the social security register as homeless are now the ultimate female lure. You can say the word ‘crap’ on the radio and not be bombarded by a swarm of angry middle-aged mothers, intent on sketching you out as one of Satan’s most loyal and dastardly companions. It’s an age where NME have declared for the umpteenth year running, this is the year of the Great British Guitar Revolution. Oh, and have they mentioned it’s spearheaded by some dour youths from Brighton with increasingly gash haircuts?

It’s a frightening state of affairs – one in which a band is only entitled to be cool and ‘hip’ (people still use the word hip, right?) if they open their album with an intro track. Yes, we all love Foals and alt-J and we all want to be Yannis Philippakis, but how hard can every intro track get fucked? Just get on with it, for the love of god.

But when noodling intros, which could be the b-side from a cassette you bought of a whale song to help you get to sleep are regarded – not as an optional extra – but as an unmissable dollop of hyperclichéd goodness. Enter Lower Than Atlantis with an album that can help you forget this bizarre world arrayed in front of you. An album which, if the Mercury Music Prize was taken seriously anymore by the people who select the nominees, would have already been announced as the winner of the prize in 2015. Fo’ real.

What Mike Duce and his Watford based comrades Ben Sansom, Eddy Thrower and Dec Hart have achieved is an album to not just announce this band on the world stage, but to scream it naked from the rooftops, waving its collective cock from side to side maniacally, saying ‘pay attention to us, we’re not going away’. Quite a publicity stunt that would be, but flaccid, flapping cocks aside, LTA’s self-titled fourth album is the record they will be remembered for.

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Immediately, opening single ‘Here We Go’ feels like it clocks in at around the length of a full album. Simply because of the amount of times you will end up pressing the repeat button. With a chorus as colossal as the Titan of Braavos and lyrics effectively spelling out the path this band are currently travelling on: “now, we’re raging on like a locomotive / shout, we’re coming through / we’re heading for ya / we are above all of the commotion / we are on track so get back behind us.”

The emphatically catchy choruses don’t stop there: the entire album is a catalogue in how to write a bonafide alternative rock banger, with tune after tune on the record having instant repeatability. So much so, that it’ll likely take you an age to get through the album as each track has its unique facets to get your head around. The rhythmic ‘90s-esque drum beat of ‘Stays the Same’, punctuated by Duce’s indomitable vocals, is a particular standout.

The most confusing and arguably triumphant feature of ‘Lower Than Atlantis’ is ‘Criminal’, where the band go full Matt Bellamy on acid conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. At times it feels like a sample from ‘The 2nd Law’, as Mike Duce gets increasingly angst ridden and begins to yell, “yes, sir, we’re gonna get some action / you distract ‘em and I will attack them.” Yes, it’s as mad as it sounds, but it’s spectacularly mad at the same point, making for completely compelling listening. It’s stadium ready rock; the savvy song writing of ‘Changing Tune’ show Lower Than Atlantis have found their niche and have hammered home their point to devastating effect.

They do the grandiose and the massive incredibly well, while also showing in the opening chords of ‘Just What You Need’ Duce and co. That they’re capable of the understated. The brilliantly built ‘Time’ is such a simple construction but with the introduction of some new voices, it becomes a layered far more textured piece of songwriting.

Lower Than Atlantis prove on this record they’re similar to Shrek.

Bear with me…

They’re a beast with layers, possessing the ability to slam out tracks that sound like they were penned to serenade mass crowds at Wembley, until you peel back the layers when they show they’re capable of songwriting that could pluck the tightest of heartstrings. They can produce a pop banger like ‘Emily’, which feels like it could almost be inspired by Busted, and then they burst in with an unquestionably huge tune like ‘Damn Nation’. Bursting at the brims with every alternative rock cliché you can ask for, “live life / love life / while I’m alive I only got one chance this time / that is do or die.” There’s not a track on here which doesn’t jump out and you and demand you take notice and that’s why ‘Lower Than Atlantis’ is unquestionably my Album of the Year.

Well, at least until ‘Sonic Highways’…we’ll see.

9.5/10

Lower Than Atlantis’ self-titled fourth album is out next Monday, the 6th of October, on Sony Red / Easy Life. Watch Lower Than Atlantis‘ pseudo video for ‘Emily’ below.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest tours, gigs, and music we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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